Tokyo is a magnet for tourists. This massive metropolis of 13 million people seamlessly blends tradition and innovation. It has one of the best public transportation systems in the world and is jam-packed with rich history and culture. It is also a gastronomic paradise and epicenter of electronics and video games.
If you’ve never been to Tokyo, you should consider it now. Tokyo is the host of the Summer Olympics 2020. And here’s a Tokyo travel guide for first-timers.
What to do
Eat your way around the city
Most food lovers call Tokyo the gastronomic capital of the world. From Michelin-starred restaurants to street food stalls, there’s a vast array of foods to try. Here are five local foods you must try:
Sushi – try it either at a kaiten-zushi (conveyor belt sushi) or sushi restaurant (best to sit at the counter and see how the chef prepares your food).
1. Tempura – battered and deep-fried vegetables and seafood.
2. Ramen – noodle in soup.
3. Unagi over rice – grilled eel over rice is a popular dish from the Edo era.
4. Soba – buckwheat noodles served hot in soup or cold with dipping sauce.
Tokyo city tours
Join one of the guided Tokyo city bus tours that include the Sumida River cruise and the following attractions (stops or drive-bys):
- Tokyo Tower – enjoy panoramic views of Tokyo
- Imperial Palace Plaza
- Sensoji Temple and Nakamise Shopping Street – a cultural landmark and most beautiful Buddhist temple and shopping street in Tokyo
- Ueno and Akihabara
- National Diet Building
- Imperial Palace East Garden
- Meiji Jingu Shrine
- Tsukiji Outer Market
- Hama-Rikyu Garden – garden from the Edo era and home to the 300-year-old pine tree
We recommend joining a full-day tour that starts at 9 am and ends at approximately 6 pm.
Self-guided tours using the metro
Travel by metro lines at your own pace and use the three sightseeing routes provided by the Official Tokyo Tourism Guide. We recommend the “one-day trip through Tokyo on the Yamanote line” approved by the Tokyo Tourism Board. This line will take you to Tokyo Tower, Imperial Palace, Shibuya, and Shinjuku. Yamanote line (green) is the mainline around the city center.
It’s fun to try out the clean and efficient Tokyo metro. The metro system has 36 train lines connecting the city from corner to corner, to the suburbs and neighboring towns.
Tokyo Sake day trip
There are four breweries in Tokyo that are within 60-90 minutes train ride from Shinjuku Station. Most of these breweries conduct their tours in Japanese. It’s best to visit with a tour guide or with someone who speaks Japanese. You must reserve your trip in advance for the following breweries:
1. Ozawa Brewery (founded 1702)
Ozawa Brewery is a three-minute walk from Sawai Station. Go for a 45-minute tour and sake tasting experience. The brewery offers tours even if there’s just one visitor.
You must book in advance by phone or through their website at sawanoi-sake.com/en. There are restaurants, art museums, and gardens at the Ozawa Brewery.
2. Tamura Brewery (founded 1822)
It’s a 10-minute walk from Fussa Station. Brewery tours are available for ten people or more only. The tour takes an hour, and you get to taste the sake too. The brewery tour includes visiting the storehouses, watermill and other sake making related sites. Tours are only in Japanese. There are no tours from December to January. No tours are conducted on Sunday, Monday and public holidays. You must book at least one week to three months in advance by telephone only.
3. Toshimaya Brewery (founded 1936)
The Toshimaya Brewery offers evening brewery tours at least once a month starting at 7 pm. The brewery is about a 20-minute walk from Higashimurayama station. These tours are only in Japanese.
4. Ishikawa Brewery (founded 1863)
Ishikawa Brewery is a registered tangible cultural property of Japan. It features beautiful and well-preserved traditional architecture.
This brewery has an on-site Italian restaurant and a traditional Japanese restaurant serving soba.
If you have to choose one brewery, we recommend going to Ishikawa Brewery. You get an English guided tour, a chance to taste sake and excellent restaurants to pair with the sake or beer (brewed there). The brewery is about a 20-minute walk from Hajima Station. Reservations are recommended as well.
Nakamura Brewery and Nozaki Brewery do not offer brewery tours.
Mount Fuji, Hakone, and Lake Ashi Cruise day tour
When in Tokyo, it’s best to carve out a day trip to view Mount Fuji. The Mount Fuji, Hakone and Lake Ashi Cruise full day tour is the most popular day tour from Tokyo. This guided bus tour includes Mount Fuji viewing from various viewpoints (weather permitting), lunch in Hakone. Also, a short cruise on Lake Ashi and a tram ride to the top of Mt Komagatake. On the way back, you’ll be dropped off to the train station to take the bullet train (shinkansen) back to Tokyo. The train ticket is included in the tour price.
Where to stay
Your choice of accommodation will depend on your budget, comfort levels, location, and travel style. Before you consider where to stay, you should identify the district that’s suitable for you. Here are five top areas to choose:
1. Shinjuku – the business and entertainment center of Tokyo. Attractions in Shinjuku are Samurai Museum, Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (Observation Deck is free), Kabukicho and Shinjuku Golden-Gai.
2. Shibuya – the shopping and entertainment district. Shibuya is famous for Shibuya Crossing, Meiji Jingu Shrine, Hachiko statue in front of Shibuya Station and Shibuya 109.
3. Ginza – upmarket shopping, art galleries, and nightclubs. Check out Ginza Shopping District, Tsukiji Outer Market, Ginza Six and Ginza Kabukiza (Kabukiza Theatre and Kabukiza Tower).
4. Asakusa (Taito district) – the place to visit Sensoji Temple, Nakamise Shopping Street, and Kuramae (arts and crafts of Tokyo).
5. Akihabara – famous for electronics retail shops, manga, anime, and video games.
Here are five accommodations to check out:
- Park Hyatt Tokyo
- Hotel Ryumeikan Ochanomizu Honten
- Turn Table Hostel
- Palace Hotel Tokyo
- Imperial Hotel Tokyo
Metro tickets and airport transfers
International travelers can buy discounted tickets from the Tokyo Metro Information Center (at the train stations), airports and at some hotels. You can buy a 24-hour, 48-hour or 72-hour ticket. Your hours start after the first use.
These tickets are valid on Ginza, Marunouchi, Hibiya, Tozai, Chiyoda, Yurakucho, Hanzomon, Namboku and Fukutoshin lines on the Tokyo Metro Line. You can also use it on four Toei Subway Line. Namely, Toe Asakusa, Toei Mita, Toei Shinjuku, and Toei Oedo lines.
Besides taxis, private transfers, and trains, you can easily get an airport limousine bus from Haneda or Narita Airports to the city center. The airport limousine bus is my preferred method of transportation to and from the airport. The orange and white-colored buses are efficient, on-time, and affordable. Check it out.